Own What You Do, Even Before You’re Doing It
If your only theatre experience is from school, or if you have no experience at all, at what point can you start to call yourself an actor? A director? A designer? A dramaturg? A producer? With other professions, the answer is simple: When you finish medical school, you are a doctor. When you pass the Bar Exam, you are a lawyer. With theatre, the answer is trickier, because oftentimes there are no academic programs to teach you what you want to do, and even if there are, professional practice of whatever you want to do is done in an entirely different way from school, and that’s a scary reality to jump into upon graduation.
I am a dramaturg and a producer, but it hasn’t been easy for me to get to a point where I feel like I own those titles. I don’t have a degree in either field, and while I have had several internships with related experience, as a recent grad, I have very little professional experience doing precisely those things. In an industry where you have to learn on the job, it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of feeling perpetually under-prepared, and that can make you feel like you have no right to call yourself a producer, or an actor, or whatever it is you do.
After years of saying what I want to do is work as a dramaturg on new scripts in development, I am finally finishing my first production doing just that. Right before I began work on this show, I spoke with my former boss from when I interned at NYMF, and I mentioned that I didn’t know at what point I could stop calling myself a “wannabe” dramaturg. She asked me if I know what a dramaturg does; I said yes. Then, she said, that’s it. Go do it. It’s advice I’d received before, both personally and via quotes from nearly every creative person in history. I’d hear that I should make my own opportunities, and that the only way to create great work is by first creating a lot of shitty work! I had always intellectually understood that this advice was true, but I only fully understood it recently.
Here’s a secret: No one is going to give you permission to start making stuff.
Shortly after that conversation about no longer calling myself a “wannabe,” I was contacted to start work as a dramaturg on a new musical. After I talked to my former boss about wanting to become a dramaturg, she passed my information along to the person currently in her old position. From there, I was asked to dramaturg a new musical in the Festival! Not shadowing a dramaturg, like I had suggested, but an offer to actually be the dramaturg. Now, like I said before, I had only ever talked about doing this, so that feeling of under-preparedness was sometimes overwhelming. But what I realized over the last few months working on this script is that that feeling probably won’t ever go away, but I shouldn’t listen to it. Every project will have different needs and you will be working with a different group of people who collaborate in different ways, and that’s exactly what makes working in theatre so exciting.If you’ve graduated recently and you’re just starting out, stop saying that you’re trying to be or want to be something. If you aren’t finding opportunities you’re excited about, go make your own. From personal experience, I can guess that a lot of you are nodding your heads and agreeing with me on the surface, but you’re not going to put any of this into action for quite a while. And that’s fine – everyone figures this out in their own time, that’s why there are so many famous quotes about it – but I know that I got my first job as a dramaturg because I made a decision to stop being afraid to call myself one.